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Charlotte's Under The Radar, $80M 911 Center

Ben Bradford

The City of Charlotte has undertaken several large capital projects in recent years, including the streetcar, the Blue Line Extension, and the transformation of Bojangles Arena into an amateur sports complex. One of the largest has received comparatively little attention: a new, $80 million emergency communications center, which also fits into a larger effort to upgrade an aging 911 system.

A 911 call goes to CMPD headquarters, to one-half of a muted, earth tone room, where operators sit in gray, wheel-shaped clusters of cubicles, wearing headsets and each facing multiple computer screens.

They ask by way of greeting: “Hello, 911, do you need police, fire or medic?”

The answer determines where the call goes next. Each department has its own call center and its own dispatch.

“Let me go ahead and get you over to Charlotte Fire, stay on the line, don’t hang up, okay?” An operator says to a man reporting a fire, on a typical call earlier this month. All told, it takes about 20 seconds from the opening question to the caller reaching the fire department.

For those needing more than one service or unsure of the services they need, it can take longer and require repeating a story.

Part of the idea behind the Joint Communications Center is to eliminate those delays. Every department’s call takers and dispatchers will be located on the same floor. And they want to cut out transfers, so callers only need to speak to one person, says CMPD Captain Bill Boger, who heads the 911 call division.

“There’s that little bit of delay there, but hopefully with everyone being a universal call taker there is no delay there,” says Boger. “To coin a phrase the fire department uses, they say ‘seconds save lives,’ and it’s absolutely true.”

It may seem surprising that, in 2014, our emergency calling system relies on transfers. But 911 is old technology—the current system dates back to 1987. While it has received updates throughout the years, most notably incorporating cell phones, the underlying set-up remains the same.

“The 911 infrastructure hasn’t changed much over the past 20 years for a reason,” says Trey Forgety, government relations director for the National Emergency Number Association. “It works extremely well.”

“In the public safety community, we’re often very conservative about making changes to things that aren’t broken,” says Forgety.

But that can also make it difficult to integrate commonplace digital technologies.

CMPD call-takers input callers’ names, locations, and any other relevant information they provide. CMPD dispatch and officers can view that information, but should the call need to be transferred to fire or medical responders, the information will not send with it. An upgrade is planned for September, when the Charlotte Fire Department gets a new dispatch system.

CMPD is also preparing to accept text messages. Only a handful of 911 centers in the country can do that. Ultimately Captain Boger says they want to be able to receive pictures and video, which could help responders as they approach a scene.

“That’s moving on down the road, a couple of years down the road until we get all that stuff,” says Boger.

But, as it comes in, Boger says his department’s resource requirements will expand.

“You’re getting more and more information pumped into 911 centers. So we’re going to need to increase staffing to be able to handle the workload,” he says.

The need for more space and resources provided the original impetus for the Joint Communication Center. 911 calls have increased as the region’s population has grown. This year, calls have grown more than 10 percent from last year, to 900,000. Boger says. CMPD is running out of room.

The police and fire departments saw an opportunity to move a number of like services into one location—and the 911 expansion is now just a piece of that.

“Looking at potentially having to move them or build a new center, the two chiefs said ‘if we’re going to build one, let’s build one for everybody,’” says Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jeff Dulin. “This will be more than just a Joint Communications Center. It’s also going to be the city and county emergency operations center; the city and county 311 system will be in there. A lot of those things kind of fit together.”

Dispatchers will have easy access to video feeds from police and transportation department cameras, because it, too, will be on the same floor.

A move toward co-locating services has occurred around the country. Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. may have been the first in 2009.

“Anybody that works in our facility is immediately aware of the fact that ‘gee whiz this is a lot better at doing it this way,’” says Steve Souder, director of Fairfax County Public Safety Communications.

Souder says people who once only talked by phone now see each other every day. They know each other better and they work together more effectively. He also says it has saved on cost.

“You don’t have a duplication of effort, you don’t have multiple systems being bought when one system will suffice,” says Souder.

In Charlotte, officials also tout eventual savings, despite the project’s $80 million cost. The city has approved $68 million in bonds over the past two years—more than for any other current capital project, although the streetcar project and Blue Line Extension have a higher total cost. The other $12 million will come from dedicated 911 funds. The new center is expected to open in 2018. 

Correction: The story originally misstated the name of Charlotte Fire Department Deputy Chief Jeff Dulin.